Wandering down small residential laneways, we made our way to one of the oldest and most famous mosques in China, The Great Mosque of Xian. Entering through a small gate, we stepped into a quiet and tranquil courtyard garden surrounded by distinctly Chinese style architecture. There were no signs of domes or traditional minarets with only a few decorative Arabic carvings providing any indication of its Islamic connection. Historic records carved in stone tablets revealed that the mosque was established in 742 AD and continued to evolve through several major dynasties. Today the well-preserved mosque consists of four major courtyards with several impressive buildings and structures that continue to be used by the 20,000 devout Chinese Muslims who live in the area. The ‘Imperial Hall’ is the oldest building and houses an historic piece of stone called ‘The Moon Tablet’ that once provided the earliest means for calculating the Muslim calendar. However, the centerpiece of the mosque is the octagonal shaped ‘Introspection Tower’ that was traditionally used for the call to prayer. This is a magnificent three layered Chinese pavilion, constructed entirely from wood, featuring classic upturned roofs which are covered with decorative glazed roof tiles. It is quite amazing that in 1956, despite the turmoil following the Communist revolution, the mosque managed to be decreed ‘an important historical and cultural site’. This status was further promoted in 1988 when it was pronounced to be ‘one of the most important sites in China’.
Stepping out of the solitude of The Great Mosque, we found ourselves back in narrow lanes that were lined with market stalls. With tens of thousands of visitors to the historic mosque each year, the stallholders are strategically positioned to follow the tourist trail and well versed in the key English phrases to entice westerners to buy. Much like a Turkish bazaar, there is a myriad of goods for sale and with a bit of the expected haggling, there are many bargains to be had. However this time Jules was not lured so much by the shopping, but by the smell of cooking food that was emanating from the main street. Simply referred to as ‘Muslim Street’, this central road is lined with all manner of produce stores and restaurants, many of which were spilling out onto the flagstone pavement. While most of the time we had absolutely no idea of what was being cooked, the sights and smells were quite amazing. As most of the food venders seemed to be breaking just about every health regulation known to the western world and also heeding the advice of other seasoned travelers, we were content to merely watch rather than taste. That was fine, as the experience of simply being there amongst the bustling crowds as Jules photographed madly was quite enough.
Systematically we worked our way down the street, picking up the last of our bargains and taking in the atmosphere. At the end of Muslim Street (or possibly the beginning) a group of elderly gentleman casually sat on wooden chairs with small birdcages placed alongside. They chatted and smoked, occasionally glancing across at the small group of westerners that looked decidedly out of place there. Not only weren’t we Chinese, but more significantly in this neighborhood, we weren’t Muslim either. While they were clearly used to tourists, it was obvious to us that this remained a very tight knit community that had steadfastly maintained its own culture and traditions over centuries. Against all odds the Chinese Muslims of Xian had managed to establish their own unique enclave circling the Great Mosque and in doing so, they had created a neighborhood with its own distinctive character that appeared increasingly at odds with the rapidly changing city. While the Muslim Quarter certainly provided us with a religious point of difference, it also served to highlight cultural diversity within China itself. While modernization continues its rapid pace throughout much of China, here there appeared to be no hurry, with much of the community happily going about its daily business of socialising, buying food and bartering for goods before slipping down one of the tiny laneways to return to their homes. Only the ritual call to prayer interrupts proceedings…much as it has done for centuries.